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Green Book Cleveland Digs Deep into History of Black Leisure

Interactive Site Takes Viewers Back Into the Annals of Northeast Ohio Recreation

A project started by CSU Professor of History Mark Souther in 2021 is gaining traction, and it’s putting a spotlight on the history of Black leisure and recreation in Northeast Ohio.

Green Book Cleveland started in the Center for Public History + Digital Humanities at CSU, but has expanded over the past two and a half years into a broader collaborative. In 2021, Souther got the idea of involving CSU students to help research sites in the area that were either listed in the well-known Green Book guides for African American travelers in the 1930s-60s or were welcoming places throughout that time frame. His initial goal was to have the project to begin as a digital history project, and that it would become widely accessible and offer a basis for inspiring broader community interest and involvement.

“Green Book Cleveland is intended as a restorative history project to preserve and share stories of places that might otherwise be absent in the city's and region's history and aims to generate awareness of African American history in Northeast Ohio that moves beyond the Underground Railroad and the Civil Rights Movement,” said Souther. “Leisure and recreation shouldn't be seen as simply lighthearted or frivolous; Black Northeast Ohioans often struggled to overcome bars to entry in leisure and recreation spots and found it necessary to carve out their own spaces. Green Book Cleveland also seeks to use emerging knowledge of these place-based histories to encourage commemorative actions and even to contribute to larger efforts to bring more equitable access to green space in the region.”

Souther also points out that the goal of Green Book Cleveland is to restore visibility to places that live in people's memory but have in most cases been erased from the landscape. For instance, in Cleveland as in most American cities, Black communities were often among those that suffered disproportionately as urban renewal and other demolition programs leveled wide swaths of the city, and as disinvestment and population flight hollowed out these places. The project has called attention to places that might surprise many people today.  

“Northeast Ohio had at least two Black-owned beaches in the early 20th century – one in Lorain and another in Ashtabula,” said Souther. “Cleveland African American inventor Garrett Morgan developed the Wakeman Country Club for African Americans in the 1920s in the town of Wakeman in Huron County, and it was just one of several Black-owned rural resorts scattered around Northeast Ohio.”

The Center's key partner is the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, who was awarded a National Park Foundation Mellon Humanities Postdoctoral Fellowship for 2023-25 on the basis of this collaboration. It includes representatives from Cleveland Metroparks, Summit Metro Parks, the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park, The Trust for Public Land, ThirdSpace Action Lab, Ohio & Erie Canalway National Heritage Area, and the University of Akron.

“Dr. Hazim Abdullah-Smith, a recent American Studies doctoral recipient from the University of Maryland, is now actively engaged in the project,” said Souther. “The project team is continuing to do research, conduct oral history interviews, and engage with other organizations and individuals with similar programmatic interests.”

As Green Book Cleveland continued to grow, the CSU Center for Public History + Digital Humanities' developer Erin Bell established the project website, which uses a novel WordPress plugin called PlacePress that was developed in-house and made possible by grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

PlacePress is a free digital tool that anyone in the world can use to create similar location-based stories and tours.

“This project draws on my expertise as an urban and public historian and is a public-facing showcase of CSU undergraduate and graduate students' scholarship,” said Souther. “In my classes, I train students do original research, understand their work in broader historical context, engage with digital tools, and develop their "voice" as authors for a public audience; At the end of the semester, they've completed not merely a paper to be graded but an example of their writing and curatorial skills.”

That very model has extended to two classes at the University of Akron during this school year, with students there researching similar histories in the Akron area. In fact, one of the graduate students in the first group of CSU students, Erich Schnack ('22), has continued his work on it as a park Ranger at Cuyahoga Valley National Park, recently securing a position at Yosemite National Park in California.

“The Green Book Cleveland team is excited about the project’s potential to craft a more complete history of our region,” said Souther. “One that inspires dialogue and planning that creates civic spaces where everyone feels welcome.”